Often, I’ll hear someone ask in a diversity conversation, “Why do we need to start so early in order for students to succeed? Why high school?” My response is simple – because we are losing too many valuable diverse candidates with lived experience before and during college. How do we expect to benefit from all they have learned through navigating systems, challenges and adversity and put that knowledge into practice in a global context if they are never able to get there?
FACES for the Future programs are meant to help minority high school students achieve greater access to careers in health care. Founded in 2000, the program has supported students interested in careers in medicine, nursing, allied health, public health and behavioral health. We have programs throughout California, and recently we were awarded a grant from the Office of Minority Health to begin scaling nationally.
But program replication isn’t our only mission. We want to constantly innovate our program model to address new concerns in health workforce development. Over time our team understood that the issues of diversity we face domestically are not unique, so we set our intentions toward addressing the need for diversity within global health. We did this to support FACES students of course, because we knew our students need support to achieve their professional goals. But more importantly we did it for others, because we know our nation needs skilled, diverse health workers to lead the next generation in finding solutions to health and wellness issues globally.
Over the past two years, FACES has had the pleasure of partnering with Global Health Fellows Program (GHFP) II, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and GlobeMed to begin building a global health career pathway for underserved minority students. We’ve developed curriculum, trainings and webinars to expose high school students to global health. This effort culminated on June 21st when 12 students from across the FACES programs flew into Washington, D. C. to participate in the 2016 Global Health Youth Summit; a program co-developed by FACES and GHFP-II. I don’t know who is more excited – the students or me!
In a recent report from The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education entitled “Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States,” we learn that only 21% of low-income students in the United States who achieved acceptance into college end up being able to secure a Bachelor’s degree. Equally bleak, a 2014 National Student Clearinghouse report outlines that only 39% of entering students will either receive an Associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year college within six years, and a full 25% of students who enter a community college in the fall will not return in the spring.
Often times we talk about youth being the “first in their family to go to college.” But going to college and finishing college are two different things, and lead to drastically different economic results for that young person’s family, as well as in how that difference curtails our efforts to fully diversify the global health workforce.
All indications lead to the necessity of building global health professional pathway programs at the high school level in order to provide the services and supports that young people need to continue up the pipeline. Students need to be exposed to career options in global health sooner, need to gain experience in work-based learning and professionalism to be competitive for internships in college, and need to be supported with safety net services that allow them to transform challenges into opportunities.
Yet we know that disparities exist in K-12 education and while the well documented “achievement gap” is narrowing and high school graduation rates are up throughout the U.S., there persists an overall 26 point differential in all subject areas between black and Latino students versus their white peers. Students from environmentally disadvantaged and socio-economically disadvantaged regions need a “leg up” at the high school level in order to be competitive further up the global health careers pipeline. FACES is that “leg up.”
So the question becomes, “Why not just work with the students who get through on their own? What do we lose when minority students from underserved backgrounds don’t make it through the global health pathway?”
Well, I’d say we lose a lot. Take a look at a snapshot of one of our programs:
Hayward, California – 45 students (2013-14 and 2014-15)
- 62% live at or below the Federal poverty line
- 25% have a history of homelessness
- 76% have incarcerated friends and family
- 80% have fractured families due to divorce, abandonment and immigration issues
- 39% will be the first in their family to graduate from high school
- 95% have experienced violence both in the home and community
While these students are certainly facing challenges that many of us would find untenable, they offer us the diversity, resilience and distance traveled we are looking for in the global health workforce of tomorrow.
But before we view them through a deficit lens, let’s also look at the reality of their resilience and inherent value to the global health workforce. This same group of FACES students represent 14 different ethnicities, speak seven languages and 68% of them are bi-lingual or multi-lingual. While 77% of them were not on track to graduate from high school when they were accepted into our program, with proper interventions, support and coordinated services they showed the tenacity to succeed. In the cohorts we examined, 100% of them graduated from high school and of those who applied to college 100% were accepted.
The key to diversifying the global health workforce is not found in pockets of students who are racially and ethnically diverse, yet who come from resourced backgrounds. If we view diversity through that lens alone, we are missing out on a great opportunity. We will not be able to leverage the lived experiences of youth who have overcome adversity and who will bring empathy, strength and tenacity to their interpersonal communication, team building and the limited resource management required of careers in global health.
To me, the irony of the FACES program is that we build programs to support students, but our world needs FACES students more than they need us. Who better to send to the refugee camps in Europe than students who have been displaced by violence and come with the empathy they need to help? Who better to send to a community where language barriers exist between those seeking health care and those providing it than a young person who has been the medical interpreter for their family since they were seven years old? Who better to work with communities facing environmental toxins better than someone who has lived in a disadvantaged community and whose sibling’s asthma was worse because of the air quality in their neighborhood? We need their lived experiences, we need their tenacity, and we need their ability to problem solve.
That is why I am so proud to be a chaperone for the 2016 Global Health Youth Summit. Yes, it will be wonderful to be with young people as they see the Lincoln Memorial for the first time, or see the White House or for a few, get on a plane for the first time! But I’m most excited to have them meet the incredible mentors from USAID, GHFP-II and GlobeMed, who are going to open up a world of possibility for them. Through the Global Health Youth Summit, they will have the opportunity to envision themselves in a career serving people around the world. And the adults will be able to envision a world where the very best of the United States is represented when we reach out to communities across miles to find solutions to health issues.